Government at mercy of road rogues, Gadkari fights lonely battle
The Narendra Modi government that overdoses on high-risk ventures like the demonetisation and air strikes appears to have been spooked by an omnipotent and omnipresent force: Indian road rogues who have ensured an outbreak of a rethink on the hefty fines passed by Parliament.
In the process, road minister Nitin Gadkari has cut a lonely figure as he seeks to fend for himself and defend an initiative aimed at reining in reckless drivers and saving lives.
The amended Motor Vehicles Act, which has stepped up penalties for traffic rule violations, came into force on September 1 in many states. (The subject falls on the state list, and the Bengal government has refused to implement the amendments.)
So far, no senior central minister other than Gadkari has come out to defend the new law. Gadkari’s deputy V.K. Singh has defended the changes but is not a political heavyweight.
Worse, for Gadkari, the resistance to the steep fines is being led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state Gujarat.
Four other BJP-ruled states — Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh — have voiced their opposition to the fines that have been hiked nearly 10 times for some violations.
On Thursday, a truck was fined over Rs 2 lakh in Delhi for overloading and a failure to produce a driving licence, registration and insurance papers or a fitness certificate.
Gadkari was a familiar fixture on news channels on Wednesday, defending the steep hike in penalties, as Gujarat hit the headlines by drastically slashing the fines.
“States can reduce the fines if they wish… but they have to bear the consequences as saving lives is the responsibility of the Centre as well as the states,” Gadkari said.
Gadkari had been pushing the amendments — seen as a pet project for him — since the first Modi government, contending that hefty fines would deter people from violating traffic rules.
On Wednesday, Gadkari did not particularly refer to Gujarat but said the government’s intention was not to earn revenues but to save lives.
That Gujarat was the first to announce a sharp cut in the fines for different types of traffic violations has aroused curiosity in the corridors of power. The suggestion is that chief minister Vijay Rupani wouldn’t have dared go against the central law on his own.
Gujarat is also the home state of Union home minister Amit Shah. Both Modi and Shah are known to exercise their influence in the affairs of the state government.
“When Gujarat is not ready to implement a central law that is aimed at a larger public good, there is some political signal in it,” a BJP leader said.
This is in sharp contrast to past instances when almost everyone in the government and the party would come out to defend any policy decision by the Modi government.
“Reports from the ground suggest there’s a huge anger among the people at the hefty fines. In such a situation, the best strategy could be to make Gadkari the fall guy,” a BJP leader said.
The reach and power of the road rogues appear to count more than the opinion of the economists who had warned of a disaster after the Prime Minister dropped the demonetisation bombshell.
There was no rethink and many feel the seeds of the ongoing economic slowdown were sown when the notes were withdrawn.